Two industry associations, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation and New York School Bus Contractors Association, decried the actions of the school bus driver who was charged on Aug. 28 with driving while intoxicated (DWI).
Both organizations called for increasing random testing for all bus drivers and penalties for all DWI offenders. The First Student bus operator accused of drunk driving in Rochester, N.Y., Amini S. Kellum, pleaded not guilty to felony and misdemeanor DWI in court the day after she drove her bus into a railing at a gas station.
Court records show Kellum had a blood-alcohol content of .09 percent that morning. Police report that they administered a sobriety test prior to charging the driver with DWI. She was tested after law enforcement and First Student officials said they smelled alcohol on her.
According to Brighton Central School District, the involved bus had dropped off students at a private school about a half hour before the fender bender. At the scene, Kellum told the arresting officer she had unloaded all students and was driving to a training session in the city, reported one local paper.
“As transportation professionals as well as parents, we are deeply troubled by reports that the driver had, before the crash, recently dropped off over a dozen students. Any case of an intoxicated bus driver is totally unacceptable,” said NYSBCA President Phil Vallone.
“We are grateful that there were no children injured or involved in this incident,” said NYAPT Executive Director Peter Mannella.
On Aug. 19, school bus driver Caitlin Railo of Port Jervis was arraigned on charges she was impaired by a prescription painkiller and prescription opiate when she collided with a Honda Civic on Feb. 14 in Huguenot. While the driver of the Honda suffered head injuries, Raillo and the sole student on her bus were uninjured.
Despite these incidents, NYAPT President Richard Gallagher noted the school transportation community in his state works very hard to ensure every school bus is safe and every school bus driver is properly prepared to transport students each day.
“The school bus drivers in our state are trained and dedicated to the safety of the children on their school buses,” said Gallagher, who noted that the actions of these school bus drivers “spoil our record of safety” for the more than 2.3 million children who ride yellow buses in New York.
NYSBCA Board Member Paul Mori said the association supports increasing and expanding random drug and alcohol testing of all drivers of all school vehicles.
“Under the current law, drug and alcohol testing only applies to certain license holders. Some drivers, including those driving school buses with 14 or fewer passengers, are excluded from the testing pool,” Mori stated at a Senate hearing in May on whether to make ignition interlocks mandatory.
Different Approaches to Prevention
Mori, who is senior manager at Huntington Coach on Long Island and has 30-plus years in the school bus industry, asserted that New York needs to follow the federal minimum of 50 percent random drug testing, and increase random alcohol testing to at least 25 percent of the school bus driver pool — up from the 10 percent now required.
Other measures supported by both associations include additional training for supervisors in drug- and alcohol-use recognition and better enforcement of laws requiring the “direct observation” of school bus drivers before their shift.
Ben Barnes of Intoxalock, which manufactures the much-debated ignition interlock devices designed to combat drunk driving, told STN the company has created the Intoxalock eLERT to check drivers’ sobriety before every shift.
“We have put the Breathalyzer into a desktop platform. Our idea is for each employee to ‘check in’ before they get behind the wheel — school bus drivers, public transit drivers, truckers, etc. We see this as a more practical solution moneywise while still getting the same benefit,” Barnes noted.
He stressed that the technology is not designed to point at “bad” bus drivers but more about preventing crashes.
“Usually new technology is implemented after a tragedy, but people need to take a look at this solution before that occurs,” said Barnes, who added that some superintendents have expressed interest, so he plans to attend more industry conferences and to reach out to parent-teacher organizations.
The portable Intoxalock eLERT allows managers to see bus drivers’ Breath Alcohol Content (BAC), exact GPS location and a photo, including their surroundings, through a secure online Log Reporter, according to the brochure.
Sober Steering offers another piece of technology designed to protect passengers as well as other motorists from drunk drivers. Company representative Catherine Carroll Biosensors said that biosensors installed in the vehicle’s steering wheel can detect whether a driver has been drinking simply through the touch of a hand on the wheel. If he or she has been drinking alcohol, dispatch is immediately notified and the school bus is immobilized prior to use.
“Our first application is in school buses,” Carroll told STN. “We now have several pilot programs underway in the school bus industry. In fact, we will be showcasing our technology at October’s NAPT Conference in conjunction with our school bus industry partner, which we will be announcing at the conference.”
For now, both NYAPT and NYSBCA are also relying on more traditional means of preventing more DWI charges among school bus drivers statewide. Both associations strongly support the school bus safety legislation (S5503A / A8053) introduced by Senator Charles Fushcillo (R) and Assembly member Donna Lupardo (D) that would increase random alcohol testing and driver observation while instituting new stiffer penalties for drivers testing positive for drugs or alcohol. The legislation remains in the Transportation Committees of each house of the state legislature.
In addition, NYSBCA officials said the state could also help prevent problem drivers from getting behind the wheel of a school bus by having the State Department of Motor Vehicles keep a registry of drivers who have been disqualified from work due to failed drug or alcohol tests.